There are many who think the Tenth the greatest of Shostakovich’s symphonies. It is certainly one of the most powerfully organised and most dramatic in its impact. The first movement opens mysteriously, with plangent echoes of klezmer music in the clarinet and string writing. By contrast, the whirlwind scherzo, lasting only a handful of minutes, is of stupendous violence and aggression. The slow movement is one of Shostakovich’s most touching and poignant achievements, a delicate web of strangely disconcerting allusions and suggestions, while the finale, beginning slowly, bit by bit transforms itself into a Jewish wedding-dance which gets faster and faster until, at the end, the orchestra hurls out the four notes of Shostakovich’s initials, DSCH (in german notation: D, E flat, C, B natural).
In the past some have suggested that the symphony’s scherzo was ‘a portrait of Stalin’, whatever that might mean. Stalin had died only months before the piece was composed and certainly this is music of anguish and anger. More recently a private letter of the composer has appeared which reveals that the beautiful slow movement is a hidden lovesong, weaving in the first name of one of the composer’s favourite pupils – Elmira Nazirova – as 12-fold horn-call: E, La (A), Mi (E), Re (D), A.
Note by Gerard McBurney.